April 12, 2024

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SpaceX launches intuitive machines Nova-C Moon Lander

SpaceX launches intuitive machines Nova-C Moon Lander

Another month, another attempt to reach the moon.

A robotic lunar lander launched into space early Thursday morning. If all goes well, within nine days, it will become the first American spacecraft to soft-land on the moon since Apollo 17 landed on the moon in 1972.

It will also become the first private effort to reach the Moon's surface in one piece. Three previous attempts, by an American company, a Japanese company, and an Israeli non-profit organization, have failed.

The company responsible for this mission, Intuitive Machines of Houston, is optimistic.

“I feel very confident that we will succeed in landing softly on the moon,” Stephen Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, said in an interview. “We ran the tests. We tested, tested, tested. As much testing as we could possibly do.”

If private companies can accomplish this feat, at a much lower cost than a traditional NASA mission, it would open the door to broader lunar exploration by NASA and commercial endeavors.

“We're trying to create a market where it doesn't exist,” Joel Kearns, an official with NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said during a news conference Tuesday. “But to do that, we have to do it at a costIn a conscious way.”

NASA is the lead customer for the mission, paying Intuitive Machines $118 million to fly its payloads, which include a stereo camera to monitor the dust plume emitted during landing and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals, into space. The surface of the moon. There is also merchandise from customers other than NASA, such as a camera made by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and an art project by Jeff Koons.

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But if these private efforts continue to fail, NASA will not get its money's worth.

The mission got off to a smooth and auspicious start.

At 1:05 a.m. ET, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the lander blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the lander on a direct path toward the Moon. Intuitive Machines reported less than an hour later that the spacecraft separated from the rocket's second stage and successfully powered itself and its systems as expected.

Intuitive Machines calls the spacecraft design Nova-C. It is a hexagonal cylinder with six landing legs, about 14 feet long and 5 feet wide. Intuitive Machines points out that the lander's body is roughly the size of an old British telephone booth, like the Tardis in the sci-fi TV show “Doctor Who.”

At launch, with a full payload of propellant, the lander weighed about 4,200 pounds.

This particular spacecraft was named Odysseus after a competition among Intuitive Machines employees. Mario Romero, the engineer who proposed the name, said the journeys of the hero of the “Odyssey,” the ancient Greek epic poem, provided an apt metaphor for the lunar mission.

“This journey is taking much longer due to the many challenges, setbacks and delays,” Mr. Romero said at Intuitive Machine's mission press kit. “Travelling the dark, frightening sea tests his mettle again and again, but in the end, Odysseus proves his worth and makes the landing back home 10 years later.”

After a week of traveling away from Earth, Odysseus will enter orbit around the moon about 62 miles above the surface. Then, 24 hours later, it will fire its engine to begin its final descent. An hour later, it was positioned near a crater called Malapert A, about 185 miles from the South Pole. The landing site is relatively flat, an easy location for the spacecraft to land.

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The Antarctic region, especially the craters that remain in permanent shadow, has become an interesting area due to the presence of water ice there. Previous US moon missions have landed in the tropics.

After landing, Odysseus will work for seven days until the sun sets. The solar-powered lander is not designed to survive the extreme cold of the lunar night.

The launch of the Intuitive Machines mission comes just one month after another US company, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, attempted to send the Peregrine lander to the moon. But a malfunction occurred in the propulsion system shortly after launch, preventing any possibility of landing. Ten days later, when the peregrine falcon returned toward Earth, it burned up in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean.

Both Odysseus and Peregrine are part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program. The goal of the program is to use commercial companies to send experiments to the Moon rather than build and operate their own lunar landers.

The space agency hopes this approach will be much cheaper, allowing it to send more frequent missions as it prepares to send astronauts to the moon as part of its Artemis program.

Thomas Zurbuchen, a former associate administrator for science at NASA who started the CLPS program in 2018, said the space agency expects half of its CLPS missions to fail, and that he has repeatedly told Congress, scientists and companies to expect that. “That's how it was sold,” he said in an interview.

But even if half of these commercial missions fail, NASA will still come out on top because a traditional mission costs between $500 million to $1 billion, Dr. Zurbuchen said, while on a CLPS mission, NASA pays the company about $100 million to fly its payloads. .

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Even a 50 percent success rate may be too optimistic. “Even if you're an advocate, you have to see if this strategy works,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.

Mr. Altemus, who worked for six years as director of engineering at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the drive to cut costs spurred a much faster pace of innovation than was possible at NASA.

“An innovation that wouldn't have happened if we had more money and more time,” he said. “If you look at all the milestones leading up to the moon landing, and all the technical advances we've been able to achieve for such a small amount of money, it's amazing.”

The hardest part of the mission – landing – is still ahead.

Mr. Altimus acknowledged that they need to make decisions that reduce costs but increase risks.

“Now, are we too cheap?” said Master Ultimus. “maybe.”

If so, CLPS companies may need to raise prices for future missions, although they will still be cheaper than what NASA has traditionally done. Mr. Altimus said that if Intuitive Machines fails this time, NASA and Congress should not give up on the idea of ​​getting to the moon on budget.

“It's the only way to really move forward,” Mr. Altemus said.